Emotional Moment Gives the Networks a Way Out

Times Staff Writer

For all the airtime cable news gives talking heads, cable news also abhors them, quick to busy the screen like a kid doing an Etch A Sketch. So during this week's coverage of Samuel A. Alito Jr.'s Supreme Court confirmation hearings, CNN's "Situation Room" repeatedly put up a six-paneled screen that looked like a mixed-media art installation -- two of the panels inexplicably trained on the Capitol building and the exterior of the Supreme Court, others allowing you to follow the news of the day.

Still, you felt for them. The hearings are monumental enough to be carried live on cable news, home of the video sound bite and the whir of instant dissection, but entirely ill-suited to the constant churn of a 24-hour news network.

Inside the Hart Senate hearing room, we watched two competing shows -- the Republicans making like Regis Philbin, plugging Judge Alito's latest vehicle ("So tell me about this Supreme Court nomination ... "), the Democrats conducting an episode of CBS' missing persons drama "Without a Trace," poking at Alito's past decisions and his membership in the conservative Concerned Alumni of Princeton but unable to place him, in the present.

Alito's membership, and the fact that his wife Martha broke down in tears over the controversy Wednesday, gave the networks something to chew on, which is to say a way out of penetrating the gamesmanship of the hearings -- senators preambling their way to question the discursively elusive witness.

"Sources close to Mrs. Alito," ABC News' George Stephanopoulos reported, "say she thought the Democrats' attacks on her husband were disgraceful."

What had set her to crying was South Carolina Republican Lindsey Graham's ardent defense of Alito at the end of a day in which he'd been branded by association as a bigoted Princeton toady for his membership in a group that felt the culture of the Ivy League campus was being sullied by the admission of women and minorities.

"Judge Alito, I'm sorry that you've had to go through this," Graham said as Alito's wife excused herself from the hearing.

By Thursday, the final day of direct questioning, the hearings had returned to form: Martha Alito was back in position over her husband's shoulder, and Alito was still there, rarely cracking an expression, his responses technical and dry, mostly variations on the theme, "It depends." You wanted someone to ask him what he'd had for breakfast. Then we could return to the mutual death stare on whether he views Roe vs. Wade as "settled law."

Fittingly, this confirmation hearing will probably be most memorable for Mrs. Alito's brief morsel of emotion and many hours in which we became familiar with the Latin phrase stare decisis, which sounds sexier than it is (it means, in essence, that precedents in law should be accepted as authoritative in similar cases).

To watch the hearings at any length has value, but only if you watch them at any length -- the straight stuff on C-SPAN, preferably, if you can stomach it. Because then you can see the chasm that exists between the dense thicket of speechifying and stonewalling in the hearing room, and the way it's squeezed down and sized to fit our many-screened lives, above the crawl that tells you the "gay cowboy movie" "Brokeback Mountain" took home the Critics' Choice Award or that Lindsay Lohan, distancing herself from her own sort of controversial membership, denied statements attributed to her in Vanity Fair about battles with bulimia.

Paul Brownfield is a Times TV critic.

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